(BY BASHARAT PEER)
Srinagar, Sept 23: On the evening of September 7th, I was trying to reach my family in Srinagar, the largest city in India-controlled Kashmir. Automated messages thwarted me: “This number is out of coverage area”; “The number you have called is not available.” At a certain point in the night, my father willed a call across the Himalayas. “We are home,” he said. “It is all right here.” His voice belied his words. I wanted to check if he had the medicine he needed for his heart condition, but the call dropped.
It had rained nonstop for the past week, and the Jhelum river, which spools like a paisley through the valley of Kashmir before crossing over to Pakistan, in the north, had been swelling. For stretches, on its way to Srinagar, the Jhelum runs parallel to the lone highway from the Indian plains to the valley. By September 5th, the river and its tributaries had inundated hundreds of villages—modest homes destroyed, apple orchards sundered, and fields of saffron and rice wasted.
Waters would soon close over Srinagar. There had already been a surge in a canal linked to the Jhelum, flooding parts of the city where more than a million people live. My family had sandbagged the entrance to our house and moved everything—books, television, carpets, sofas, clothes, and kitchenware—to an upper floor. A little later, the Jhelum ripped through the embankments in Srinagar; water rose up to twenty feet. The city began drowning. The telephone networks crashed. The lights went off. Hundreds of thousands of stranded people needed rescue, food, and medicine.
On September 10th, I flew home, to Kashmir, from Delhi with my childhood friend Jabeer Ahmad; the airlines did not charge us for the boxes of medicines and food supplies we carried. Ahmad, who works in advertising, walked through the airport with drooped shoulders. A tall, athletic man, he seemed in a daze. His uncle, who raised him, was stranded with his wife and two children in their third-floor apartment, in central Srinagar. His uncle had managed to use WhatsApp to send Ahmad a photograph of a house across the street, flooded up to the second floor. “We have to find a boat and get them out,” he told me.
Anxious faces filled the plane. The brown and blue peaks of the Himalayas—the marker of where home ended and the world began—circling the bowl-shaped valley of Kashmir, rose through the clouds. As we descended, I craned my neck for a glimpse of the ground and saw a stream swollen with furious brown water.
At the Srinagar airport, a few hundred men from the Indian state of Bihar, who had worked in construction and as house painters, squatted on the sidewalks, holding onto bundles that they had salvaged from their flooded accommodations. Rizwan Alam, a twenty-six-year-old house painter from Bihar told me, “I have been here for four days. Some person or another gives us food.” The Indian government had announced free air tickets to evacuate the stranded workers and tourists. Alam was waiting for his turn.
Calamities twist and tear our personal geographies. My parents live a short drive from the airport, but the familiar road had drowned. Young men waved twigs of willow branches to direct traffic to back lanes, through neighborhoods I rarely visited. I drove through knee-high water to our house. I rang the bell and waited for a long moment.
My father opened the gate. He looked haggard, older than his sixty-three years. He was limping; his right toe was bandaged and his foot had swollen blue. After our last phone conversation, water had roared into the neighborhood. He had watched shoes, clothes, and furniture be carried away by the current. While preparing to leave the house, he had slipped and cut himself. Hundreds of people, including my father and my aunt and her two young daughters, had passed a night huddled together on the top floor of a shopping complex a mile away. They spent two days at the house of a friend who lived in a drier area. “We came back in the morning,” he told me. My mother was stranded with my grandparents in her ancestral village, a few hours away.
Later, I met Ahmad and his uncle Mohiuddin at a crossroad. Mohiuddin, a soft-spoken man with a Hemingway moustache who writes a little poetry, had been rescued by a paramilitary force known as the National Disaster Response Force. He stepped out of a friend’s car in a faded shirt, with several days’ worth of stubble. “Nobody heard us, nobody paid any attention for four days,” he said. His voice was angry but calm, as if he was simply too tired to rant.
He had sat through the dark, fear-filled nights, punctuated by the thuds of houses collapsing underwater. Between dawn and dusk, he peered out of a window onto the main street, calling for help. Rescue boats manned by police and military men glided below his second-floor window, but none stopped. “They came to rescue important people,” he said. Mohiuddin texted every official he knew for help; the sole reply advised him not to expect any help.
The failure of the government was visible throughout the city. As the water rushed in, Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of India-controlled Kashmir, tweeted, “This is an unprecedented situation & we are doing the best we can under the circumstances. Please don’t panic, we will reach you, I promise.” More than a week later, I failed to see a policeman from his government on the streets of the city. (He is better known for his time on twitter than for his governance.) I did see, as I drove on the littered road leading to the city center, some Indian soldiers in rescue boats parked by alleys leading from a high embankment, along a flood channel, to a few upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Thousands of houses between the embankment and the Jhelum, a few miles north, were submerged. On the embankment itself, near the roof of a van poking out of the water, residents had set up common kitchens; men and women, their clothes grimy, cooked in enormous copper pots over wood fires.
Steve Coll, in a 2009 article about the long fight over control of Kashmir, wrote, “The Kashmir problem has a textbook quality: a dispute of more than six decades’ duration, involving British colonial concessions, United Nations resolutions, and a long record of formal negotiations. But it is the character of the war within Kashmir—the torture centers, the unmarked graves, and the remorseless violence of the jihadis—that better describes the contours of Indo-Pakistani enmity today.” Although the insurgency for an end to Indian rule has ebbed, and with it the Indian Army’s counterinsurgency, Kashmiri aspirations for independence remain.
Anger rose that the Kashmir militarized state—extremely effective in imposing curfews, firing at protesters, and filling prisons—could be so passive in the face of the flood. The Indian Army stepped in to rescue operations, using boats and choppers. As the Army began its operations, Kashmiris accepted the help with ambivalence—wary of an occupying force but thankful for a helping hand in a grave crisis.
Many Indian television networks and newspapers took the opportunity to loudly demand expressions of allegiance to India from Kashmiris. The spin backfired. “To use the Army’s relief efforts in Kashmir as a ploy to whitewash its crimes in the Valley as you did on the nine o’clock news on 9 September 2014 is appalling,” Seema Kazi, a sociologist and the author of “Between Democracy and Nation: Gender and Militarization in Kashmir” wrote in an open letter to a celebrity Indian television anchor, who had also tweeted that separatists “should be chastened.”
Raheel Khursheed, a young Kashmiri man who works for Twitter India, in New Delhi, and a few others created hashtags and handles (#jkfloodrelief and @jkfloodrelief) and reached out to corporations and individuals to donate medicine and food. Kashmiri students set up collection centers at universities across India. Indigo, a private airline, agreed to ship the relief material for free.
I spent a week volunteering at a relief camp that was set up by young students in an empty high school near my parents’ house. A flash mob of volunteers—young men and women who lived in the area and others, who had flown in from the outside to rescue their families—gathered at the camp in what seemed like a funereal high-school reunion. In Srinagar, we collected shipments from Delhi, marshalled by Khursheed’s group, and distributed them. “A group of boys climbed on top of our roof, cut the top off the plastic water tank, and turned it into a boat,” Zeeshan Andleeb, a senior executive at an insurance company, told me. His father, a diabetic old man, had been stranded on the second floor. “They rescued him in the water tank.”
Mudabir Jaleel, a volunteer in his mid-thirties, made a raft from empty petrol barrels tied together with rope, and he rescued hundreds of people from the most desperate parts of the city at a time when he couldn’t reach his sister, whose town, outside Srinagar, was under water. Some volunteers converted wooden coffins stored in local mosques into boats. (Among the rescuers was Amir Bashir, a filmmaker from Srinagar, who made the brilliant, sensitive movie “Autumn.”)
The volunteers rowed through drowned streets, past homes of friends and relatives. “It was a surreal to see the same streets as a ghost town,” Bashir told me. In the evenings, when they rowed back, the absence of even a single electric light for miles added to the feeling emptiness, as did the cries of hungry dogs, who were curled up in packs on boundary walls and the columns of gates—“a cross between a wolf and a man crying.”
The Indian government conservatively estimated around three hundred deaths in the floods; the number is feared to be much higher as the debris of hundreds of collapses homes is still under water, and the process of taking out decaying bodies has merely begun. (“My house was collapsed, gone, and I saw limbs floating under the debris,” Parminder Singh, a resident of Jawahar Nagar, who returned home in a boat told the A.F.P.)
Carcasses of thousands of dead animals littered submerged areas of Kashmir. The fear of waterborne diseases was growing. One evening, I drove past a military base where the Indian Army ran a dairy farm of several hundred cows. A putrefying stench rose from the water; the beams of my headlight caught the bulbous eyes staring lifelessly from the carcasses of cows on the road. On a bridge a few miles away, several hundred families were living in tents of plastic and cloth. Abdul Raheem, a grocer in his fifties, told me, “If the water is not pumped out urgently, we will die of disease.” About ten days after the floods, the government was still struggling to get de-watering machines. A few fire engines connected to tiny pumps had been deployed to target his neighborhood of hundreds of houses.
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has ignored offers of aid from the United Nations. His government has offered compensation of five thousand dollars for citizens who have lost a family member and twelve hundred dollars for a damaged house. This falls far short of the magnitude of the need. In an interview, Shakeel Qalander, a former president of Federation of Chamber of Commerce Kashmir, tentatively estimated economic losses of more than sixteen billion dollars. “There is a serious fear that more than a hundred thousand people will be without work,” Masood Hussain, who reports on economy and politics in Kashmir for The Economic Times, India’s leading business paper, said. “The coming economic distress is likely to increase societal turmoil.”
A few days ago, I walked toward Lal Chowk, the commercial heart of the city. The fortunes of hundreds of families—bales of cloth, piles of books, sacks of spices, twisted electronic gadgets, boxes of medicine—were scattered by the muddied sidewalks. A merchant sat by his soiled bales of textiles and threw up his helpless hands. Later in the day, I met Manzoor Alam, who ran one of the largest bookstores in the city. I thought of the rows of literary classics, the carefully curated shelves on contemporary history and politics in his store. Alam told me, “We lost everything.”
Now, after two weeks, the river is mostly back in its banks, but a new emergency is waiting. A long, harsh winter of piercing cold and snowstorms is a month away. “We badly need thousands of pre-fabricated homes,” Farrukh Faheem, an assistant professor of sociology at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, said. “Nobody can survive the winter in a tent.”
Courtesy: (New Yorker)